Recently a lawsuit has been filed against the NHL for their misconduct in handling concussions. The document was made available online and can be found here. It's an interesting read, but a bit irritating. As an avid hockey fan, and someone who has spent a great deal of his life playing the game, I was honestly a bit perplexed. Many of the charges and supporting evidence are misguided and at times, comically ironic. Just looking through their table of contents, quite a few sections jumped out at me that I was looking forward to reading in more depth because I simply couldn't understand how they belonged., beyond illustrating a gross misrepresentation of incidents to place blame on the party with the deepest pockets. Please don't be confused, I absolutely believe there is a problem with concussions and that the NHL has the power to improve the situation, but legally liable I simply do not agree.
As a side note, I'm fairly certain the legal council's only experience with the game of hockey is through the documents and movies he references. Anyone familiar with the game (not even the NHL) I couldn't see making some of the parallels that they do. Yet, I digress. (Also, this will be a lengthy text, as the suit is lengthy as well)
One main point of the suit is that the NHL fosters a sport that is excessively physical and profits from violence. They cite the use of "enforcers" and "goons" as well as the lax rules for fighting. My question is, to whom is this a surprise? There is no secrecy or cover up surrounding the circumstances of play in the NHL. There will be varying opinions about the history, but from the onset of the league, equipment was minimal and tempers had a tendency to soar. That particular issue is much worse in the AHL where fighting has been much more of a bankable commodity for fans when the skill isn't nearly as prevalent. Philadelphia's "Broad Street Bullies were the result of management's desire to see their skilled players no longer getting pushed around and beaten up. "Beat them at their own game" if you will. I didn't see any complaints about enforcers when Gretzky played for the Rangers. And you know what, that was a time of many fewer concussions!
In the document it states "Ultimately, the NHL has successfully extracted prolific sums of money exploiting its players through extreme violence for many decades." Does the UFC not do this? How about the NFL? Boxing? Even NASCAR! It's no secret that violence sells. If you ask me, the hazard pay is quite hansom. At the NHL minimum, a player is making more than most middle class folks would in a decade. What I find odd is that there is no supporting evidence of policies the NHL has incorporated that deliberately puts players at risk. There is a lot of reference to popular culture references to hockey as well as individual incidents in which a player did something detestable and the NHL gave seemingly inconsequential sanctions.
Many of the examples provided are taken grossly out of context. While I agree that many of the NHL sanctions handed out seemed inadequate in a vacuum, circumstantially they can be very significant. A four game suspension may not seem like much, but if you're a star player who lost is cool one day, that could be the difference between the playoffs and an early exit for a bubble club. As is the case in any legal proceeding, there is no onus on the "victim" for their part in an altercation. Never is it mentioned the dirty under-handed tactic that was used to provoke a player to execute such gross misconduct (although, in some cases, I fully acknowledge it is just one player being an ass).
I can't help but think of my hockey idol growing up, Eric Lindros. He played a very physical game that made him a target for the opposition. The problem was, he took no responsibility for his own safety when he knew he was the big guy everyone wanted to take down. He was dangerous. You let him skate about and that puck is in the back of the net. You put your head down, he'll bury you. Yet every time he had the puck, he skated up the ice with reckless abandon. Top speed he would skate through the neutral zone with his head down looking at the puck. Do you know how frustrating it is to see a guy knocked out for half a season from a hit that was telegraphed from across the ice? There were times he practically skated right to the player that hit him! Yes, he was the recipient of many dirty hits that deserved supplementary discipline, but I'd be a fool not to acknowledge that he could have greatly reduced is own risk had he only been better aware of his surroundings. I also have to note that Scott Stevens is mentioned in the lawsuit in reference to his receipt of head trauma, yet ignored again is his contribution to the problem with all the knowingly dangerous hits he has delivered that target players' heads.
The same thing goes for guys who turn their back to an incoming player when they are against the boards. When a player puts themselves at risk, that needs to be considered. If they do it with a player who is known more for scoring than hitting, it's even harder to claim malicious intent on the play. I'm sorry, but a small suspension on a hall of fame bound player is much more effective than a long suspension for the folks who are only their to make sure that nobody takes liberties with that same hall of fame bound player. I look at their example of Rocket Richard. You can't help but feel for the guy who had had enough of the lack of respect by other players and fought back.
Now let's visit their argument that the NHL is more dangerous that European hockey. WHO IS SURPRISED BY THIS? An American version of a sport is more dangerous than the European version. Where have we heard this before? Let's look no further than American Football vs. European football. The American style of hockey is geared more towards strength and physical superiority. Once again, there is no secret to this. Anyone who joins the league knows they are coming to the NHL to battle for Lord Stanley's Cup. Part of what makes the prize so prestigious is the battle that must be one in pursuit.
In the suit, the April 6, 2014 brawl between the NYPD and FDNY in a charity hockey game is used as evidence. How in the world does this relate to the NHL? Oh no, someone mentioned that it reminded them of old time hockey! Yes, and Marilyn Manson is responsible for Columbine (sarcasm). Why don't we go a step further and sue Hollywood for putting violence in movies that NHLers watch, making them more likely to be violent in the games? (Please, don't take that seriously)
I'm outraged over the "parallels" drawn in the lawsuit. A couple examples: "In Mystery, Alaska, Russell Crowe was the town sheriff and the team captain. The very next year, the film Gladiator was released also starring Russell Crowe, which one the Best Picture Academy Award. Russell Crowe won...for his role...as a bloddied Roman war veteran turned slave..." Also, "In the classic horror film, Friday the 13th, the evil villain dons an ice hockey goalie's mask. There are references to the NHL being promoted for its violence and an unveiled shot at the movie Goon. Seriously? Russell Crowe was also in A Beautiful Mind. Does that mean that advanced mathematics is inherently violent? Michael Myers wears a painted Captain Kirk mask, does that mean space travel is inherently violent? And as for Goon, that is clearly an over-dramatized satire that focuses on a minor-league level of the sport.
The preposterous "parallels" and "evidence" is nothing more than ludicrous posturing intended to sway someone who lacks any degree of intelligence. Is this really how a "jury of our peers" is viewed? It's very sad that America is being viewed as stupid wimps. It is essentially being said that everyone but an individual (who is consciously engaging in a dangerous sport) is responsible for their safety and that everyone is too stupid to know the evidence has nothing to do with the question at hand.
The argument of the lowered rate of concussions in the Olympics was also touched upon. Would you like to know why the Olympics sees such a drop in concussions? They're not getting the normal hazard pay they receive playing for the NHL. You're taking a much smaller sample size as well. Over the course of 4 years, there is maybe a preseason's worth of play. The game is much slower because there are fewer NHLers (who are built to be bigger, stronger, and faster) that are part of the play. Let's be realistic. The players in the Olympics are representing their country to other countries, not just one nation, or more often, a couple cities. The level of respect among players is much more prevalent. The level of skill is much more prevalent and being showcased.
Let me delve a bit deeper into equipment as well. The equipment requirements are being attacked in this suit and that is unjust. Players from every level have presented significant pushback to any equipment changes that are meant to increase safety. Why? Because they reduce effectiveness. This provides a distinct competitive disadvantage, especially for the more talented star players. They also cause restricted motion which can in an of itself lead to other career-ending injuries. The NHL must walk a fine line, especially considering it deals with a union of players. When does the responsibility shift to the individuals to protect themselves? I'm sick of this "it's' your responsibility to protect me from myself" mentality! While we're making movie comparisons, in the movie Rudy, why is the main character applauded for putting himself into a severely dangerous situation of sacrificing his body and safety continually in an effort to play among giants? Why would the team who finally puts him into a game not be villianized for allowing him to enter a situation that EVERYONE knows could result in a traumatic injury?
The culture of the NHL is player created and player honored. The league's crack down on fighting and other retaliatory measures has directly led to a lowered standard of respect on the ice. Players don't have to worry about immediate repercussions when taking a charge at a player or even when not fully thinking through a play. Even when I played youth hockey, I knew that if I hit a guy too far from the boards, there were at least 4 other people ready to go after me for being stupid. The least of my worries was a suspension.
Gordie Howe's nickname of "Blinky" was referenced as an illustration of the lasting effects of head trauma suffered during a game. They conveniently left out his other nickname of "Mr. Elbows" for the part he played in injuring others. He's a hall of famer because he knew how to battle in his chosen profession. Some professions are inherently more dangerous than others. Are police departments at risk of law suit because they knowingly put officers at risk when they decide to patrol known gang areas?
Too many of the examples reference incidents that are counter to the norm. One is a player who lost their helmet and kept playing before getting hurt. Another references a freak accident where Gino Odjick was struck in the back of the head with a puck. Chris Pronger's injury was referenced, which was an unfortunately careless play but was neither malicious nor a result of the rules. Yes, these occurred in pursuit of the occupation but are unforeseen and unpreventable. What if a sideline reporter gets hit in the back of the head with a baseball during warmups? Their job forced them to face away from the risk of balls flying at their head to look at the camera. The television studio is not liable because the risk, while in hindsight is there, is very minimal.
The only area where I agree with the suit is that the league should not be self governed when it comes to the acts that are criminal in any other environment. If you ask me, that's more a failure of the government than of the league to not pass satisfactory laws to define their jurisdiction. A player who uses the stick as a club away from the play (such as McSorley against Braschear and Downie in his minor league days) should absolutely be held criminally liable. Ray Emory should have been charged with assault and battery for fighting an unwilling opponent when he fought the Caps' Holtby. Hits that are intent to injure such as Scott Stevens on Eric Lindros or Matt Cooke on Marc Savard, should have an outside and independent review board to determine if they are acts of error or intentional efforts to injure another human being outside the normal incidental risk of the game. This is similar to my expectation that Mike Tyson be charged for his ear biting incident. Supplementary discipline for slight liberties taken in a game is very different from criminal acts that happen to be executed during a game. Some acts can be masked and those are the ones that need some outside perspective. Others, are clear and cut. Fighting a willing opponent in a heated contest can be covered by the rules. Going out of your way to mercilessly deform someone is quite different. Unfortunately, this lawsuit is making the attempt to equate all of these incidents as the source for the problem.
We have seen some instances of this being done. Todd Bertuzzi is still in litigation for his actions in relation to Steve Moore's injuries. (I have my own opinions on that as well, but that's for another day). There were references in the document of the suit that even speak of players being arrested for their over the top antics in a game. Trust me, we don't see the kind of risk that used to be present in the game. Significant measures and developments have occurred to protect players, even from themselves. While some have resulted in new problems, they are still there.
Of significant importance I believe is the inclusion of Matthew Barnaby's head trauma issues in the suit. As much as I thought he was a part of the problem in the NHL with his antics, I can't help but pay the man some respect for the statements he made on National Television regarding his decision in the refusal to join the lawsuit (and the subsequent decision made by counsel to still include his situation as evidence). He stated that he was aware of the risks when he signed his contract and willingly engaged in a dangerous sport. Despite any ill-effects he has felt, he would not join a lawsuit because there was no question before hand that his occupation was inherently dangerous. I respect that. I think of those in the circus who are trapezes artists or the folks who would stand in front of a cannon. It's dangerous, yes. They willingly did it for a price.
I'm not surprised that Crosby is referenced in the suit. He'll be the first to be outspoken (cry) about any slight he's received. Yet he's the first one to be guilty of the same antics (and support of those antics for his teammates) that cause injury, including concussions. I find it interest that there was no mention of the antics of Ron Hextall in the suit. He had a mean streak that deliberately caused harm to many players. However, his mean streak was always arguably warranted retaliation that helped players to regulate their own peers. You better believe that if he's on the ice, i'm more careful of the liberties I take with people because of his reaction versus the league. The push for the league to penalize retaliation and fighting has certainly had an effect on the willingness of trying to injure other players.
Playing through injuries is not a league-born problem. That is the result of the type of people who play hockey. On the ice at any one time is a guy who chooses to stand in front of a puck shot at lightning speed and 5 guys who choose to strap razor blades to their feet so they can run into each other at blistering speed with the force of a mac truck while chasing after a disk carrying clubs. You play hockey because you have a higher threshold for pain and suffering. I'm 5'6" and have skated through 6 concussions while playing YOUTH hockey. I've witnessed a player get be knocked unconscious and then be disappointed he couldn't finish the game in the following period. Our culture is our pride. I hold nobody responsible for my head trauma beyond myself. I'm an intelligent individual who knew then and knows now that my headaches and post-concussion symptoms were my own doing and I do not deserve compensation. I would expect that the players who did the same while being paid millions would take that same responsibility.
I could literally go on all day about this topic and others that stem from it, but I suppose I've been longwinded enough. I realize that this is all my opinion, and I welcome others' opinions, no matter how polarized they may be. Please feel free to leave comments and express your own thoughts on the matter. I know the document is lengthy, and yes I did read it in its entirety. While I agree that action is necessary, I fear that this action, especially with how poorly executed it is, will do nothing more than cloud the debate and hinder progress.